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Escaping child marriage in North Macedonia: ‘Once you leave your mark, others can follow’

SKOPJE, North Macedonia — Life could have turned out very differently for Sibel Bajram. The young English-language teacher comes from North Macedonia’s Roma community, where child marriages – often informal, and overlooked by authorities – are more common than among the general population, limiting girls’ opportunities.

But some Roma girls like Bajram are able to escape child marriage and its detrimental impacts, thanks to family support for their education and free choices.

“My aunt was the first woman in our family not to succumb to the pressures at the time to get married early. She broke the stereotypes by getting married and having a family at the age of 31,” says Bajram, age 25. “She paved the way for both me and my sister.”

Bajram and her sister also had other important champions in the family.

“When I was a little girl, only 6 years old, my grandfather took me to English-language courses. He was always proud of me and boasted about me to everyone,” she says. “I was fortunate to grow up in a family in which men, both my father and grandfather, immensely supported my sister and me in continuing our education.”

Child marriage and other harmful practices stem from the widespread, persistent belief that girls are less valuable than boys, that decisions should be made for them, not by them. And forced and child marriage have serious consequences. They often lead to girls not being able to make decisions about their lives: to go on with school, to work outside the house and have a career, to decide about contraception and pregnancy, and to stay safe from violence and abuse.

Such practices create intergenerational cycles of inequality, with long-lasting negative impacts not only on girls and women but also on entire societies, as detailed in UNFPA’s new State of World Population 2020 report, “Against My Will: Defying the Practices That Harm Women and Girls and Undermine Equality.”

Violation of girls’ rights in the name of ‘tradition’

Child marriage is linked to poverty, school dropout and early pregnancy, which can be detrimental for girls’ reproductive health. In North Macedonia, child marriages predominantly occur among the Roma community. In Roma settlements, 45.1 per cent of women aged 20 to 24 years old were married before the age of 18, compared to 7.5 per cent in the general population, according to the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey carried out in 2018–2019 with the support of UNFPA and UNICEF. The same data shows that 15.5 per cent of Roma women were first married or in union before the age of 15, compared to 0.3 per cent of women overall.

“Women and girls from marginalized and rural areas face violations of their rights through the prism of tradition, and also due to the perceptions that they have no value without a husband and that their virginity is a matter of family ‘honour,’” says Nesime Salioska, a Roma rights activist.

“What is most disturbing is that child marriages, although they fall into the category of gender-based violence, are not clearly recognized as such by state institutions, which fail to act adequately to prevent them or protect the victims,” Salioska adds. “At the same time, these isolated and left-behind communities often have a significant fear of institutional intervention, so some of these patriarchal values are applied as a ‘protective’ mechanism.”


‘My parents have always been very proud of me,’ Bajram says. Photo credit: Sibel Bajram/UNFPA North Macedonia

Changing laws and attitudes

In November 2019 at the Nairobi Summit on ICPD25, the Government of North Macedonia formally committed itself to eliminating child marriages by 2030. This commitment builds on steps taken starting in December 2018, when the country’s parliament enacted a law making extramarital union to someone under the age of 18 a crime. The new law, which was passed with direct support from the Women Parliamentarians’ Club and the parliament’s Secretary-General, Cvetanka Ivanova, was followed by changes and amendments to the Law on Primary Education in August 2019. This paved the way for a broader debate on child marriages.

“The changes and amendments to the Law on Primary Education clearly state that data should be collected on the reasons why pupils drop out of school,” says Salioska, who initiated and is actively involved in these processes. The law, she says, specifies that if it is determined that an underage extramarital union is the reason for school dropout, the school is obliged to inform the relevant Centre for Social Affairs, the State Education Inspectorate and the responsible person for education within the municipality so they can take appropriate action.

“Next to come are changes and amendments to the Law on Secondary Education, as well as to the Family Law, which will recognize the extramarital union as a form of marital union which also has to be banned until the age of 18,” Salioska adds.

“Our national partners recognize the importance of eliminating child marriage and are working to do so through actions at various levels and in various sectors,” says Afrodita Shalja, Head of Office of UNFPA’s North Macedonia Country Office. “The government’s commitment includes creating an official database on the number of child marriages, tracking individual development and providing services for their care while ensuring rights and well-being.”

‘A woman should be on equal footing with her husband’

The commitment made at the Nairobi Summit includes developing a protocol for coordinated action by all relevant ministries on preventing, identifying and penalizing child marriages while also developing and implementing educational campaigns, in collaboration with civil society organizations, that will sensitize the public on the issue in the context of human rights.

“I often encounter judgments from my peers who are already married, in form of questions about when I am going to get married,” says Bajram. “I answer that, of course, it will happen one day, but also that a woman who becomes a wife and mother should be educated and have a secure job so that she is on equal footing with her husband in terms of economic position and contribution to the family.”

As the president of the newly established Roma Women’s Association “Lacho Dive,” Bajram works to motivate, organize and further educate other Roma women and girls to enable them to make similar decisions.

“I tell them, take advantage of the opportunities that life offers you, educate yourself the best you can and believe in yourself,” she says. “The road to success is not easy, but once you leave your mark, others can follow.”

—Irena Spirkovska